Phoenix hospital case met ethical standards


The theological issue visited with reference to a medical procedure executed recently in a Catholic hospital in Phoenix demands analysis in depth. The Catholic Messenger (Feb. 24 issue) would do well to revisit the matter even to the point of assuming a position.

The issue pivoted on whether the hospital acted within Catholic moral parameters in permitting a procedure which would likely terminate an 11-week-old unborn baby. The 27-year-old mother would almost certainly have died without removal of her diseased placenta.

Father Richard McBrien wrote convincingly that the hospital acted correctly — well within the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. George Weigel, senior fellow of the Ethics and Policy Center, Washington, D.C., took issue.

Weigel structured his position on the “Principle of Double Effect,” an ethics standard the Catholic Church supports. In using the principle as a basis for condemning the Phoenix hospital, he unwittingly proved that it had acted in accord with the principle.


The principle holds that to validate any action as good, despite the fact that there will be a residual bad result, four tests must be passed: 1. The act itself must be good. In Phoenix, the surgery saved the patient’s life. 2. The only thing that one can intend is the good act, not the foreseen but unintended bad effect. Phoenix passed this one. 3. The good effect cannot arise from the bad effect; otherwise one would do evil to achieve good. In Phoenix, removal of the diseased organ was a good act because it was intended not to end life, but to save one. 4. The unintended but foreseen bad effect cannot be disproportionate to the good being performed. An unborn baby died, even though nobody desired that result. A mother of four children was saved from death.

God did not endow humans with the gift of common sense by mistake.

Robert Miller


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